Army numbers in Middle-earth

Last Alliance 2(C) New Line Cinema

 

When reading accounts of battles and warfare, numbers are important. They help provide context and scale to the conflict, allowing readers to assess the situation in terms of balance in favour or against an ally or enemy. Which is why I have often found it somewhat baffling that Tolkien gives us so little information on army numbers in his Middle-earth stories.

Despite the plentiful engagements, conflicts and clashes between good and evil, there are only a select few moments when the author divulges any numerical figures.

Tolkien is a great storyteller and knows how to write a battle (The Silmarillion is a pristine example of the author’s skill in this). But despite the epic proportions of his stories, armies are often described as “vast”, “innumerable” or by the vaguely-worded “thousands”.

Whilst reading such passages, I have always asked myself “But how vast is vast?”, “What would an innumerable host look like?”, “Are the thousands of orcs, five or twenty or a hundred thousand?”

Sure enough, there are some examples when Tolkien gives us a hint as to the extent of a battlefield’s size. There are the 10,000 elves who emerge from Gondolin during the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, or the five hundred dwarves at the Battle of Five Armies, the 6,000 (or more accurately, 5,500) Riders of Rohan at the Pelennor Fields, or the 7,000 men Aragorn leads forth from Minas Tirith to the Black Gate.

There are other instances, with some careful reading between the lines and simple calculations, in which readers can come to some approximate figures as to army numbers.

Take for instance the battle at the Black Gate of Mordor. We learn that Aragorn set out from Minas Tirith with a strength of seven thousand men, leaving a strong force at the Cross-roads and others to retake Cair Andros. Once confronted by Sauron:

“The men of the West were trapped, and soon, all about the grey mounds where they stood, forces ten times and more than ten times their match would ring them in a sea of enemies. Sauron had taken the proffered bait in jaws of steel.” – The Return of the King

So by that reasoning, with approximately six thousand men of the Free Peoples, the enemy must have amounted to over sixty thousand – and that figures helps us visualise better the gravity of the situation for our heroes, and the scale of the battle that ensues.

Yet, such figures are few and far between, which often make me wonder what was Tolkien’s reasoning for omitting these details in his writings.

One possible motive that occurred to me was that, it is not the author’s place or intention to provide a blow-by-blow, meticulous account of a conflict. Tolkien is not interested in the nature of the battle itself, but rather he uses it as a means to help move the story further and play out his characters’ arcs through the repercussions and outcomes of the fighting.

So while the strategies and the heroes’ choices are important, the numbers are irrelevant, and to Tolkien it suffices to inform the reader that the good folk are outnumbered or faced with overwhelming odds.

The vagueness of a battlefield’s size taking place in Beleriand or Middle-earth, provides for added authenticity to Tolkien’s tales, where enigmatic and descriptive words outweigh a clear-cut number, allowing readers unhindered access to their own imagination as they are able to conjure up and fill their minds with their own interpretations of what they are reading on the page – a much more powerful storytelling characteristic.

What are your thoughts about Tolkien’s writing of battles? Have you ever thought about this during your reading? Let us know below!

Till next time.

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12 thoughts on “Army numbers in Middle-earth

  1. I think Tolkien read a lot of ancient and medieval sources and the “personnel” numbers in these are sometimes wrong and more often simply inexact. “Innumerable host” doesn’t really mean they couldn’t be counted, but rather that the numbers seemed insurmountable from the perspective of the observer or writer, or that they enhance the perception of the difficulties involved for the benefit of the audience.

    As a side note — as we see in contemporary politics, many observers have a hard time counting bodies even on a general basis. Crowd estimates are often wrong and it’s easy to understand this. The next time you’re in a large “crowd” of people, first ask yourself how many are there, and then try to make a count. People often drastically overestimate.

  2. Great thoughts! I think the Professor intentionally left the numbers vague to allow our imaginations to run wild, and fill out the story with whatever number seemed right. Sometimes, when we want to know more, it’s easy to get lost in details and this derails the narrative. Here’s an outstanding book/resource which gets into the nitty-gritty details of the Politics of Middle Earth, and is the predecessor to all the battle stuff that we want to know!
    https://www.amazon.com/High-Towers-Strong-Places-Middle-earth/dp/1940992516

      • Oh yes! It’s absolutely fascinating! Not only that, but it is METICULOUSLY SOURCED AND DOCUMENTED! For any serious Tolkien scholar/collector/fan, the endnotes alone are worth the price of the book.

      • BUT! I bought mine before it cost as much as a good used car! Holy Cow! That price is crazy (clearly, I didn’t look at the price before I posted the link).
        Do you want to borrow mine? 😀

  3. I honestly had never considered it. I suppose I’ve always been too busy worrying about specific characters and the outcomes, like you mentioned, to even consider it.

  4. Hi James. Interesting article! Is there a parallel with Tolkien’s description of his villains (e.g. Sauron). Somehow leaving descriptions “in the shadows” makes them all the more daunting and mysterious.

  5. I like the ambiguity in the word “innumerable“. An army that’s shooting at you can be innumerable, even if there aren’t very many people in it.

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